Westlake Park’s new direction
Just around lunch time on a cold, gray February afternoon, Marji King leaned against a planter in Westlake Park, smoking a cigarette.
A small fight broke out behind her, but King seemed oblivious.
Others said the argument started over a cigarette. It ended when one man punched another in the head and ran away.
King, 30, was unfazed.
“This is mild,” she said of the incident. “If you don’t like how things are going here, wait five minutes, and it will change.”
Westlake Park changed in a big way March 1 when the city of Seattle and the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA)opened a new 1,000-square-foot playground in the middle of the park, right in front of See’s Candies.
The $140,000 structure includes a peanut-shaped enclosure of benches, a padded surface and a geodesic climbing dome. The playground is partly meant for the 3,000 children who live downtown. DSA pursued the project as one of its long-term goals for the downtown economy, hoping the area would lure shoppers and their children from the suburbs and other neighborhoods in the city.
But many who hang out at Westlake Park see the playground as an attempt by city and business interests to sanitize the area, clearing out low-income people and political activism, the better to promote shopping and tourism.
A young man who called himself Guardian at Westlake Park Feb. 27 said the playground is a pretext for eliminating homeless young people.
Center of commerce
Westlake Park has always been tied to commerce. It opened in 1988, with the construction of the adjacent Westlake Center, a shopping mall. The area quickly became the civic, shopping and entertainment core of the city.
It is busy year-round. More than 70,000 people visit the carousel that opens up before Christmas each year. During the summer, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department hosts concerts and outdoor dances.
On Feb. 27, people ate hotdogs in the park, despite the chill. Others waited for a bus or read books on the bench. At one end of the park, a crowd of men played chess with an oversized board and pieces.
On the large stone stage, Westlake Park matron Mama Love embroidered a denim jacket with blue and orange thread. She met with teens and interpreted tarot cards for them, using every opportunity to tell them individually that they’re beautiful people.
The park is also a venue for free speech. It was at the center of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests. Occupy Seattle took over the park for weeks during the fall of 2011, drawing thousands of people one weekend to participate in the nationwide protest against the greed and corruption of the so-called 1 percent.
Each year, Parks and Recreation receives about 75 applications to hold rallies and protests at the park.
“If you want to make a statement and want to reach as many people as possible, it’s just smart to go to Westlake Park,” said Ian Finkenbinder, who organized May Day in 2012 at Westlake Park, that drew hundreds.
Playground may not be permanent
In a way, the new playground is a gift to the city from private interests. Designed by Mithun, a Seattle architecture firm, the playground was paid for by the DSA. Now that it’s completed, it will be owned and maintained by Parks and Recreation. None of the pieces are permanent. After two years, city officials and DSA will assess how the park is being used and determine whether to keep it there.
Jon Scholes, DSA’s vice president of advocacy and economic development, said the organization came up with the playground after asking downtown residents what the area needed.
The play space is also meant to help downtown retailers compete with suburban shopping centers, he said. Over the last seven years, the recession has hurt downtown businesses, and many shoppers are turning to shopping centers with more amenities.
Enhancing the park, Scholes said, is part of the DSA’s economic development strategy.
Activists and homeless teens assume that this attempt to grow the economy is also an attempt to push them out, and they cite Occupy Seattle as an example of this. Occupy Seattle moved out of Westlake to Seattle Central Community College after a month of struggle with the police and city, which periodically enforced no-camping rules in the park.
“There’s this culture or idea that the [DSA] wants to promote, with the assistance of the city, that downtown Seattle is for commerce only, and they will put in infrastructure to make that an established reality,” Finkenbinder, the activist, said.
Elaine Simons, a long-time activist for homeless youth, worries that the park will give police an excuse to tell homeless teens to scram simply because they make some parents and children uncomfortable.
“You put in a children’s park, it is now a ‘zone’,” Simons said.
A homeless 16-year-old who called herself Blue G said no one would take their kids to a playground in a park known for drug dealing.
She and a friend sat on the park’s stage while contractors laid out the playgrounds padded surface.
“I think people are going to smoke a lot of meth in that park,” she said.
Fights, drug deals ‘not welcome’
The parks department concedes the playground is a way to change the atmosphere at Westlake Park.
Victoria Schoenburg, strategic advisor for Parks and Recreation, said the playground is meant to bring a positive feel to the area and encourage people to clean up their behavior or move along.
“Fights are not welcome, drug dealing is not welcome, prostitution is not welcome, but the [teens] are totally welcome,” Schoenburg said.
Scholes, of the DSA, said Westlake Park is known for all kinds of uses, and that won’t change because of a playground.
Westlake Park has “always served many different functions and done it well,” he said.
Park draws many regulars
For some, the varied, unpredictable street life on view at Westlake is the whole reason for going there. John Harris, 70, rides a bus from Lake City to Westlake Park every day to read a book and talk with other park regulars. He knows all the park staff and gives directions to tourists.
As the playground was being built, he sat at a table, a hardbound copy of “A Dance With Dragons” by George R.R. Martin open in front of him.
But Harris spent most of his time talking with other people in the park. Despite the hum of construction, the buzz of a minor fight and an endless stream of pedestrians, Harris described the park as peaceful.
He enjoys watching the bustle of the inner city.
“It all happens here,” he said.
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